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Bet on Arkansas

Southland will be a serious threat to Tunica in time.



The new slot-happy Southland Park Gaming and Racing in West Memphis is the most serious threat to Tunica's casinos in their short history.

Yes, it's West Memphis, which is more truck stop than tourist trap, and, yes, Arkansas' state symbol should be an orange-and-white highway cone in a construction zone. No, it's not going to happen in a year and, no, it won't be nearly as dramatic as Katrina was to the Gulf Coast. But Southland will transform itself and make its mark.

Because it's not about dogs, it's about slots and that old adage that says if you let the camel get its nose inside the tent, pretty soon you have the whole camel. Arkansas let the camel get in this fall when Oaklawn horseracing track in Hot Springs and Southland commenced operating as casinos with restrictions.

For now, Southland is pretty much a dump. Ceiling tiles are missing on the second floor, and the off-track-betting rooms reek of stale smoke. The neighboring motels are strictly of the budget variety, and there's not a golf course in sight. In my unofficial license-plate survey in the parking lot, 91 of 100 cars were from Arkansas or Tennessee.

In the casino part of the place, hundreds of slots were mostly idle on a recent weekday afternoon. Employees rolled carts around with pitchers of soft drinks on them. The buffet, however, was a definite improvement over the former dog-track fare.

Arkansas law only permits games of skill. So to play a slot you spin the reels twice, locking in your cherries, bars, and double diamonds on the first spin and hoping to improve them on the second spin. Progressive slots upstairs are linked to machines at Oaklawn for bigger payoffs. If you win you get a ticket redeemable at the cashier's window instead of a bucket of coins. Video poker machines are the same as the ones in Tunica. Blackjack is played on 12 tables without cards, using digital computer screens instead. The "dealer" simply pushes a button and pays or collects the chips.

In other words, once you get down to the bare business of player and machine, it's not much different from Tunica. But don't take my word for it.

Anthony Sanfilippo is head of Harrah's Central Division. He was involved in the expansion of casino gambling to Indiana, Louisiana, and Mississippi. He is leaving Harrah's this month, when his employment contract expires.

"I would say Arkansas is opening up over at Southland a casino without table games at the dog track," he said.

Slot machines account for 80 percent of casino revenues. Southland's "skill" slots have all the bells and whistles of Tunica's, and customers feel like they're getting two spins for the price of one even if the payout percentage is similar.

Southland is 10 minutes from downtown Memphis, while Tunica is 30 to 45 minutes away. In Tunica's early years, casino operators used to downplay the importance of distance from Memphis, which Sanfilippo says is the gateway for 60 percent of the Tunica business. Not any more. Harrah's original casino in Tunica closed, and the company bought other properties closer to Memphis.

"From Grand Casino to the location of the first facility in Tunica was about 13 miles," said Sanfilippo. "That's a big difference."

While Tunica casinos have added golf courses, glitzy hotels, and big-name entertainment, it's been a race to the bottom for slot addicts. Backwaters such as Greenville were first to put in nickel and penny slots. Now, all the casinos have them.

Like Mississippi, Arkansas gambling will evolve. Let the state Racing Commission and the legislature get a taste of the gambling tax revenues for a year or so and see if the politicians loosen up the restrictions.

The camel, remember, has his nose in the tent.

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